In late February, when public places were still open and it might have been considered not just reasonable but admirable to take two young children to a cultural institution, I brought mine to the Cloisters, a gothic building high on a hill in Upper Manhattan that houses the Met’s medieval art collection. It was the unicorn tapestries I wanted to show them. Unicorns are so popular with my daughter’s kindergarten class that the school offered an afterschool enrichment program devoted to making rainbow unicorn crafts. I thought she would like seeing the tapestries, especially displayed on the stone walls of the castle-like building.
The Cloisters unicorns are very different from the rainbow-maned variety Thea draws on white printer paper. In a palette that is muted and autumnal, the tapestries show a bearded unicorn first pursued by hunters, then impaled by a spear, and finally entrapped in a fence. They are gothic, sad, bloody, mysterious. We zig-zagged through the museum, stopping several times to look more closely. “What’s happening to her?” Thea asked. As I tried to skim-read the plaque mounted on the wall for an answer, she’d interrupt: “She’s bleeding!” or “She has a beard!” The interruptions implied a justifiably indignant question: How could I think these unicorns were the same species as the ones on her coordinating school accessories? My daughter would wander over to a fountain or examine the carving on an arch, and stop a few moments later in front of a different tapestry and interrupt my condensed reading of its plaque with another matter-of-fact observation: “She’s trapped!”
When I was a little girl, the books I loved best were dark, and though they did not disturb me, an adult might have wondered. Even in a book that was not on the whole frightening, what I often liked most were its vaguely threatening undercurrents. We lived in the French-speaking part of Switzerland for my first and second grade years; knowing we’d return to the US and I’d need to be able to read English along with my peers, my mom spent most evenings guiding my reading from a handful of English-language picture books.
The book I picked most often was Audrey Wood’s Heckedy Peg, the story of a poor mother whose children (named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) are turned into food by a witch. Just as the witch is poised to take her first bite, the children are rescued by their brave, wise mother. When the paperback copy I ordered for my own children arrived, Thea asked me to read it over and over, each time telling me she didn’t like it. “Are you sure you want me to read it again?” I’d ask. She did. I understood.
Though I hadn’t realized it until I re-read the book, many of its details had merged with my memory of learning to read—my understanding of how stories work was forged in a kind of primitive reading of literary archetype. There was the wholesome mother, beautiful with her head in a kerchief, smart enough to trick the witch and compassionate enough to truly know each of her children’s desires. In contrast, there was the hideous, angry witch, who had a peg leg and tricks, captures, and eats children alive. There was the notion of a vaguely medieval poverty (the family live in a thatched-roof cottage) that was noble and pure. When Thea and I first began the book together, I hadn’t remembered that the witch ultimately jumps over a bridge and is washed downstream in a river, or that the children were each named for a day of the week. But, as I encountered these details as an adult, their familiarity bordered on relief: That’s where that faint memory might have been sparked!
On one of our early readings, I noticed that the witch walked right past the mother with a wheelbarrow full of her children in the shape of dinner! I noticed more about the mother, too. I’d understood and remembered her as beautiful and good, connected in some way to the pitcher of milk one of her children requested from the market. But as an adult—particularly as a mother—I saw that she was smart in a way specifically connected to care and intimacy. She saved her children not only because she was able to remember what all seven of them had asked for from the market, but also by making often-indirect connections to the forms they’d taken on the witch’s dinner table: “Bread wants butter. That’s Monday. Pie wants knife. That’s Tuesday. Milk wants pitcher. That’s Wednesday. Porridge wants honey. That’s Thursday. Fish wants salt. That’s Friday. Cheese wants crackers. That’s Saturday. And roast rib wants egg pudding. That’s Sunday.” The repetition of want echoes the family’s poverty from the book’s early pages, but it also evokes the intense longing and need that young children have and the profound importance of recognizing it.
As a little girl, I understood this without ever thinking to articulate it: I didn’t like the book in spite of the frightening page where the witch is shown with a fistful of pie (Tuesday) just inches from her mouth. I loved the book because it dealt with something dark. The darkness in the book was a darkness I already knew about. I understood the threat posed by strangers: After all, I went to grade school in the late ’80s, when child abductions were a cultural obsession. The book also presents the bigger and less openly discussed risks of desire. I already knew that strangers offering candy out of a white van were Very Bad, so surely I also knew that there was evil in the world and that desire—and wouldn’t I have sensed that it wasn’t just desire for candy?—can be dangerous. I loved Heckedy Peg because it showed these dangers in grotesque illustrations and because in the end, a mother’s righteous, protective love was enough to defeat them all.
The other books I fell in love with during those years as a fumbling-French-speaking, oddly intense American kid in Switzerland were C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. My parents read them to me in chronological order, starting with The Magician’s Nephew, but it’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that brings back the physical sensation of our old white couch against my bare legs, the quality of light in the family room, the feeling of being flanked by my parents as we read about Aslan’s death, and after a break for some inconsolable sobbing on my part—his subsequent resurrection.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children have been sent away from their parents to an old, magical house in the country during the bombing of London. Early on, the children mention their mother a few times and occasionally encounter the professor who owns the home, but otherwise they inhabit a world without adults. In theory, they’re safer in the countryside, but they’re also less immediately cared for. They enter the wardrobe as children and while in Narnia become adults—not only in the sense that they lose their innocence, but because they spend years there, reigning as virtuous kings and queens.
Like the professor’s house in the countryside, the hundred-year-old house my family was renting in Switzerland was imposing and felt haunted, or at least storied. Before this, we’d lived in a new ranch in a clean and sunny Kansas City suburb; this house was its opposite: big and old, with a World War II-era bomb shelter in the basement. The house felt fancy and lonely and dangerous. But unlike the Pevensie children, my family was right there. Though I had only one friend at school, couldn’t figure out how to use my required fountain pen, and was struggling to master French homophones for my weekly dictées, my parents were always nearby, answering my questions about the bomb shelter, reading to me beneath the wrought-iron framed windows, and tucking me in to bed each night.
As Thea was getting ready to start kindergarten, I thought a lot about what she’d be exposed to and how I might want to prepare her. At some point I’d started spelling the president’s name if I had to mention him in front of the kids. I knew that in school there would be lockdown drills, though I’d heard they would be presented as practice for a time when a wild animal might enter the building. I knew Thea didn’t know the word “gun.” Would she hear it at school for the first time? Later that fall, when she came home and asked us to practice a lockdown at home, I blinked back tears and complied. She explained to her little brother, Simon, that a mean bear might try to get in and showed him to the closet until the good “buoys” (as in the floating marine equipment) arrived. Although I wanted to acknowledge the need she felt to rehearse something that had clearly unsettled her, it felt impossible to keep my horror from allowing her fear to grow into something bigger than it already was, so I observed quietly. Then, in March, I tried to determine what to tell her about COVID-19.
School districts in our area of suburban Connecticut were among the earliest to close after a party in the town where my husband teaches was identified as a “super spreader event.” Several students at his high school tested positive, and so in our first days of self-isolation we waited on high-alert for him, or any of the rest of us, to begin to cough or spike a fever.
At the same time, I felt like the time was right to start reading the Narnia books to Thea. I knew the books might be difficult for her, especially with language and idioms that are British or rooted in the mid-twentieth century, or both. She was younger than I had been when I first read the books, but on each cold, gray March day, I thought more obsessively about how reading the whole series would be a perfect project for our self-isolation. It was only once we started reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the Pevensie children having been pulled out of school and sent to the house in the countryside—that I thought about why I’d felt so pulled to read the novels now. The books are about finding a place to be brave in a way that is typically beyond children, and also about creating the space to be a child who is practicing to be an adult. Though Lewis references the war only fleetingly, the children’s world both inside and outside of Narnia is starkly incompatible with the perceived innocence of childhood.
There were many moments in our reading when I wondered if I was pushing things, taking a break from Thea’s well-worn picture books just because I’d grown tired of them, or casting aside the tattered early readers her kindergarten teacher had sent home out my own boredom. Until the recent Heckedy Peg, we hadn’t had a lot of good guys and bad guys stories in our house, and I worried the more prolonged and widespread existence of “bad guys” in the Narnia books might be too much.
Thea has been an obsessive close reader since she was very young, insisting that we go over things she doesn’t understand again and again. “Tell why,” she’d demand when, at two, we read about a fish with rainbow scales who refused to share them with his friends. “Tell why,” to the line “my car won’t go very far” below the picture of an anthropomorphized rabbit playing with a toy car. She asked a lot of questions when we read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and some of them seemed to confirm my suspicion that she was missing some of the meaning. She asked often, for example, what color dress Lucy was wearing. But I decided that didn’t matter so much, because she also asked questions that got at some of the bigger ideas Lewis might have wanted children to consider. She wanted to confirm: Edmund was good but did a bad thing but was good? And Tumnus, the faun who nearly betrays Lucy, was a good faun who was temporarily bad but pretending to be good? Why was he crying when he decided not to betray her? She was also asking: Must we forgive someone who puts our lives in danger out of self-interest? Can good people do bad things, even on purpose? Can we grieve and mourn the evil we might have done?
After we finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Thea wanted to know more about Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund in Narnia so we skipped (for now) The Horse and His Boy and went on to Prince Caspian. At the end of the first chapter, we came to a scene and illustration so familiar I wanted both to laugh and cry: Exploring an island they’ve just found themselves transported to, the children discover an abandoned orchard and the crumbling walls of an old castle. Reading this scene and studying the illustration felt like peeling back a layer of literary consciousness into my earliest understanding of archetypes. I realized I’d been revisiting this scene without knowing it, over and over again, for decades. I had, on some level, thought of this scene and this illustration when I first read Shirley Jackson. I’d recognized not the scene itself but my memory of it, when I read the “Time Passes” section in To The Lighthouse, in the overgrown orchard in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, in that strange carnivorous inverted-paradise island in Life of Pi. This scene had been somewhere in my mind when I taught my high school students about the Romantic poets and the archetypal imagery of coming of age narratives: fruit trees and decay and wildness and ruin and maybe even the threat of desire.
I think I even thought of this scene, or at least those old castle walls, when I imagined that Thea would love to see the unicorn tapestries hanging at the Cloisters. If I had remembered what the unicorn tapestries really looked like, I would probably not have brought two young children to see them. If I had remembered that the buzzing memory I had of reading Heckedy Peg was not just the thrall of a compelling children’s picture book but also discomfort, fear, and recognition, I might not have bought it for my daughter. If I’d understood that the Narnia books were on my mind because I felt trapped, lonely, and existentially afraid, I might not have begun reading them to a kindergartener.
At the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the Professor tells the children not to try to find their way back to Narnia, but that they’ll likely find their way back again someday. There is so much loss in the novel’s conclusion: the end of the children’s adventure; the return to the ordinary, war-torn world; the impossibility of deliberately recapturing the magic they’d known in Narnia; and the loneliness inherent in having been part of something so exciting and frightening and good and magical. It was this scene, not Aslan’s death, that made both Thea and me cry. She hated the idea that they could not access that magical world when they wanted to. The more I think about the world they escaped to Narnia from, and the more I see what Thea seems to already know, the less I think that “innocence” is what any of these children have really lost—at least in the way we usually use the word.
The Pevensie children do eventually find their way back to Narnia, of course. The orchard and abandoned castle they find in Prince Caspian is the ruins of Cair Paravel, the castle where they once sat on four thrones and restored kindness and fairness to the land. They haven’t been inside the walls long—hungry after a long journey, they first set about eating some apples—before they have the same feeling I did: sadness and vague relief followed by recognition, longing, and understanding.
In Jenny Offill’s new novel Weather, the protagonist reads this same scene to her son, who realizes long before she does where the children are. Then he asks his mother if he will still be alive when she dies and if not, what he will do. “I tell him that old dodge,” Lizzy says, “That it will be a long long time before I do. That I will live a long long time. But this is not what he wants to know.”
Part of what I loved about that scene as a child, and what I carried with me without realizing I’d held it so close, was the relief of seeing darkness I recognized, articulated on the page. Psychologists and literary scholars have argued that children’s stories—the folktales and fairytales we all grew up with, so disproportionately populated by orphans—are both instructive and liberating. Stories about children who’ve lost their parents are meant to give children a way to understand and name a grief they already carry. Whether or not their anxious mothers have said the word “die” in front of them, they already know that someday they will have to live in a world without that mother.
Some of the darkness children understand or intuit is likely a result of both a personal and collective failure to protect them: my insufficiently-veiled conversations about “the numbers from Italy,” alongside our communal acceptance that lockdown drills are now a routine part of educating children. In calling the pandemic “germs” or in not using the word “lockdown,” I’m hoping to filter out what I can, but these semantics now seem a little beside the point. When the nation erupted in protests after George Floyd’s murder, I wanted to be transparent in a way I hadn’t before. After all, we’ve stared together at bloodied unicorns and wondered about the specific horror of a witch who carts children-turned-food past their unknowing mother, watched children return to their paradise that’s gone to ruin.
And so, when my son asked why we’d taken a different route home, I told him there was a protest, and I told him it was because a man had been killed because of the color of his skin. Thea asked who killed him, and I told her it was a police officer. I don’t think I got this conversation quite right; I keep thinking that perhaps I should have both more, and less. But in giving voice to an abstract sense of danger and darkness, and even evil, I hope to offer my children some kind of relief.